Interleukin-15 (IL-15) is a proinflammatory cytokine that is overexpressed in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease characterized by activation of monocytes/macrophages (MPhi), and by expansion of autoreactive CD4(+) T cells. We hypothesized that IL-15 plays a major role for this expansion of CD4(+) T cells and modulates the phenotype of monocytes/MPhi and their interaction with CD4(+) T cells. Here, we show that IL-15 enhances the proliferation of CD4(+) T cells from patients with RA in peripheral blood mononuclear cell cocultures. To further dissect the underlying mechanisms, we employed MPhi from IL-15(-/-) or IL-15 transgenic mice. These were induced to differentiate or were stimulated with IL-15. Here we show that addition of IL-15 during differentiation of MPhi (into 'IL-15MPhi') and overexpression of IL-15 by MPhi from IL-15(tg) mice leads to increased levels of major histocompatibility complex class II expression. This resulted in enhanced stimulation of antigen-specific CD4(+) T cells in vitro and was accompanied by reduced messenger RNA expression in MPhi for immunosuppressive SOCS3. The proliferation rates of IL-15MPhi and IL-15(tg)MPhi were high, which was reflected by increased p27(Kip1) and reduced p21(Waf1) levels. In view of high serum and synovial levels of IL-15 in patients with RA, our data suggest the possibility that this excess IL-15 in RA may stimulate monocytes/MPhi to activate the characteristic autoreactive CD4(+) T cells in RA.